• U.S.

The Fight over Big Muddy’s Flow

4 minute read
David E. Thigpen

The Missouri River’s shifty personality was a constant problem for Lewis and Clark, who struggled against its powerful current and crumbling riverbanks. To 19th century westward expansionists, the Missouri was something to be harnessed, its rambunctious energy put to work. It was. Seven dams erected between 1933 and 1966 now master the once-wild river as it follows its twisting, seven-state course from its headwaters near the Rockies to its confluence with the Mississippi, north of St. Louis.

The dams profoundly altered the character of the Missouri, evening out its pulse–the naturally occurring spring rises and summer drops–and capturing much of the silt that gave the waterway its nickname “Big Muddy.” The dams offered protection to some 1.4 million acres of rich, river-hugging farmland, curtailed damaging floods and made it possible to hem in the shifting riverbanks with miles of concrete levees and retaining walls. And for the 10 million inhabitants now living and working along its 2,341-mile path, the multitasking Mo is a source of drinking water, electricity and irrigation and a resource for shipping, sport fishing and other recreation.

But a big price was paid in loss of habitat for the wildlife that thrived on the river’s natural ebb and flow. Environmentalists are proposing a policy shift that would use the Missouri’s dams to restore the river’s traditional behavior, unleashing a surge of water southward in the spring and allowing the flow to dwindle in summer, as it once did. The plan has triggered a fiery debate, roughly pitting northerners, who benefit from the river’s natural attractions, against southerners, ranging from barge haulers to farmers, who benefit from the river’s commercial properties. It’s a debate not over science so much as over who loses. Any change in the flow will have serious consequences for someone’s livelihood.

The science is straightforward. Two years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a “biological opinion,” urging the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates the water, to change the way it runs the dams, warning that the steady flow threatens three endangered species: the piping plover, least tern and pallid sturgeon, a long-snouted behemoth that looks like a refugee from the Jurassic period. A higher spring flow would signal the sturgeon to spawn and would provide food; the piping plover would find hospitable nesting ground on sandbars carved out by the rushing current. A summer drawdown would create shallows for the young sturgeons to survive and protect plover nestlings from being washed away.

But farmers such as B.J. Bailey of Oregon, Mo., whose 2,500 acres border the river, fear that any change will inundate acreage at planting time. “We’re always at the mercy of Mother Nature here, but to have to fight a man-made flood too just isn’t right,” he says. For barge operators like Don Huffman, higher water means more income: each additional foot of draft allows boats to haul 600 more tons of cargo. “Without consistent flows, there is no navigation,” he says.

Upstream in the Dakotas, river-fed reservoirs have stimulated an $86 million annual tourist business. There residents are in favor of using the dams to mimic the natural flow. Reason: less water will be sent downstream in the summer. That means more water for their marinas and lakes, so boaters won’t be left high and dry. In Garrison, S.D., behind the vast reservoir created by the Garrison Dam, businesses see their sales fluctuate with the level of the reservoir. Last year sales hit $11 million, but in years when the corps sends water south to keep barges from running aground, sales can drop 30%.

Any changes recommended by the corps will have to be approved by Congress, and a court fight will surely follow. But don’t expect any action soon. In June the corps, in an act of bureaucratic avoidance, announced that it was delaying its decision indefinitely. –With reporting by Steve Korris/St. Louis

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